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Beyond Chicagoland

Good News! The Federal Spending Bill Won’t Gut Chicago Transit Funding

A Metra Electric train in Hyde Park. The new budget earmarks $250M for Positive Train Control, which Metra is required to implement. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

On February 12 when Donald Trump released the blueprint for his much-hyped infrastructure plan, things looked pretty bleak for Chicago sustainable transportation. While the bill was supposed to contain $200 billion in federal funding for infrastructure over the next decade, mostly for road expansion, it included no new federal revenue, and that money would have come from cuts to other programs including grants for transit and Amtrak.

Trump released his 2019 budget proposal on the same day, which called for slashing $3.7 billion from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts competitive grant program, a key funding source for mass transit that has funded CTA and Metra line overhauls. A White House official also indicated that the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program would be cut. TIGER grants have bankrolled CTA track and station improvements, the CREATE program to relieve congestion on freight rail corridors, as well as South Lake Shore Drive pedestrian bridges.

But, as reported by Streetsblog USA’s Angie Schmidt, the budget deal released last week by the House of Representatives didn’t just preserve current transit funding, it actually increased it, which should come as a major relief for Chicagoland straphangers. Thanks to resistance to the original budget from ultraconservative Republicans, Democratic politicians were able to trade their votes for including some spending priorities in a compromise budget. The Senate subsequently approved the budget, and Trump signed it into law on Friday – grudgingly, since it didn’t include full funding for his proposed border wall with Mexico.

The budget for the Federal Transit Administration has been increased by $1 billion to $13.5 billion, with $10.3 billion of that money going to transit agencies, Schmitt reported. An additional $2.65 billion will be used to fund capital projects.

Transit analyst and ex-Metropolitan Planning Council staffer Yonah Freemark noted that the amount of money for transit infrastructure upgrades and expansions represents a marked increase from previous years. The new budget actually triples funding for TIGER to $1.5 billion (although Schmitt noted that the program has become more road-oriented under Trump.) The budget also includes $2.64 billion for New Starts, which is the biggest amount that’s been budgeted for years, and twice what Trump originally proposed.

That’s all terrific news for Chicago transportation, because the CTA has previously used TIGER money for the Green Line’s Garfield Park Conservatory station and various Blue Line work, and it’s currently bankrolling overhauls of the Garfield Green Line stop and the Red Line’s 95th Street terminal. It’s great that TIGER funds will be available for future station upgrades, as well as bike and pedestrian projects.

The New Starts bump could be especially beneficial for the Far South Side because in January the CTA announced its intention to apply for more than $1 billion from the program to help pay for the $2.3 billion south Red Line extension project.

The compromise budget also bodes well for Midwest rail, since it preserved the $1.3 billion in past annual federal funding for Amtrak, whereas Trump had hoped to cut that amount in half. It also earmarked $250 million for implementing Positive Train Control technology, which was previously an unfunded mandate. Hopefully Metra will be able to win some of that money for installing the safety tech on its trains. The railroad is currently planning to launch PTC this year on its busiest line, the BSNF route between Chicago and Aurora.

So take heart, Chicago-area residents – the federal budget wound up being far from the transit-starving plan that the Republicans had originally proposed.

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